Dressed in a business suit and monogrammed shirt, Toni Gogu, at 36, is clearly a high-flyer. He heads the legal department of the Albanian National Bank. To judge from the number of times during our interview that he discreetly withdraws to take calls on his mobile phone, he is clearly a man of some importance in his sphere of business.
He also happens to be an evangelical Christian and the Protestant voice on the board of the Interconfessional Bible Society of Albania.
Toni became a believer at the age of 19 in 1991. It was the time when Albania had just opened up: the longstanding official ban on religion had been lifted the previous year. And, given a Bible by some English volunteers working with Open Doors, an agency that distributes Christian literature, including Bibles, to persecuted Christians, he read it.
“I was on a journey,” he reflects. “My father was nominally Orthodox but in reality my parents said there was no God. So I was an atheist – but I had never been challenged about my atheism.”
Losing the wrong idea about the Bible
Sensing that he was a ‘seeker’, the volunteers suggested a particular evangelical church he might go to.
“I had already heard about this church,” he says. “I was reading the Bible and wanted to know more.”
His spiritual progress continued by means of church attendance, reading the Bible and corresponding with his new Christian friends who attempted to answer his questions and sent him helpful literature to read.
Gradually he lost the idea he had once had that “the Bible imposed rules on you and robbed you.”
And when he brought home a New Testament, to his surprise his parents vied to read it – each embarking on a Christian journey of their own. His mother subsequently became a Christian but his father, who scrapes a hard living as a painter and sculptor, found the committed Christian life to be difficult, too.
“He accepts that there is a God,” says Toni, “but he is disappointed with the state of the Church.” He remains hopeful for his father, however.
The need for a different kind of church
In 1994 Toni graduated in the law and for two months he worked in the Ministry of Finance before becoming a full-time youth pastor, a job he stayed in for six years.
In 1999 his pastor moved to Kosovo and for a year Toni stepped into his leader’s shoes.
Then in 2001 he and his wife decided step out and plant a different kind of church – one that had the aim of reaching young professional people, like themselves, who had never been reached with the Gospel by the existing Church. He felt – and continues to feel – that the somewhat rigid schedules of local churches do not fit the professional lifestyle.
“Nor can I tell these young professionals, ‘I get paid to talk to people about Jesus’,” he says. “It simply wouldn’t make sense to them.”
Re-entering his profession, he started working in the district court of Tirana before moving to a section of the High Court dealing with the appointment of judges. And from there he took up his present position.
A dream of shaping public policy with the Gospel
It was at this stage of his working life that he happily reached the end of a struggle that he had been having. The foreign missionaries who helped Albania kickstart its evangelical church movement in the 1990s had seemed to emphasise that you had to do God’s work through the existing Church – ideally as a member of the clergy.
But having seen from his own perspective some shortcomings of ‘conventional’ churches – specifically their apparent inability to reach out to young professionals – Toni concluded that he was being called to serve God in his secular job. Hence his acceptance in 1999 of a position on the Bible Society board, while in his spare time he is trying to organise a lawyers’ Christian fellowship.
“My dream job,” he says, “would be in helping to shape public policy in Albania with the Gospel,” he says. And at the end of June he visited England to see at first hand the ways in which the British and Foreign Bible Society is trying to do just that at Westminster, the home of the United Kingdom’s parliament.
A lay presence on the Board
Asked if he would consider entering politics, he answers, “Not now,” a reply perhaps calculated to leave the door open for the future. “There is a lot to be done in terms of the putting the Bible into the context of sport, art and politics,” he adds, “and Christian influence in the sphere of politics is beginning in Albania.”
For time being, though, he continues to give valuable support to Altin Hysi, the Bible Society General Secretary, from his position on the board.
“Having him on the board fits very well with what we want to achieve in terms of having not only clergy but lay people involved with Bible work,” says the General Secretary.
“And I shall be there as long as I have something to offer and as long as Altin will have me,” says Toni.